Painting with light

[Photogram: Hands and Paintbrush], 1926
Laslo Moholy-Nagy

“All a photograph does is describe light on surface. That’s all there is.” – Gary Winogrand

If you see photography as a means for recording only the real world that you see then this will be difficult – that’s the point, really. Photography is a visual art. Your film or sensor is a canvas, or airbrush – your choice. It records light. Nothing more. If I limit the records my sensors make to trying to depict reality, I am selling my creative soul short. Light is a medium – it can be controlled, even applied, like paint. I once had a shirt that is long gone that talked about the art police. I can’t find the quote but the bottom line of the story was that a guy was creating work that didn’t fit the “ART Laws” requiring depiction of old barns, meadows, rivers and forests and was arrested and forced to paint still life’s of flowers as his sentence. I loved that shirt!

So again, light and film/sensors are artistic media, just like paint and a canvas. You’ll see lots of cool stuff done lately by outfits like PikaPika using LEDs and whatnot to make photographic light art – cool stuff. For me, that is almost too planful, albeit really fun. If you need to take it slow and don’t get the straight light painting thing, try it: set up a tripod, camera, and whatnot in the dark, and go in front of it with a light, LED, or flash. Photographers have been “painting” parts of buildings and scenes with flashes for a long time. It’s fun and cool, and freeing. This is a good article on the traditional “carry the flash” type of light painting for you. Just for some additional fun, here is a loosely related article on painting with smoke.

While I enjoy the tripod based “paint the scene” approach, I prefer to paint directly with the camera. In the darkness, I enjoy the freedom from a tripod and the movement of making a light painted photo – almost the internalized performance of creating an image – think about it – when you paint, your hands, body and mind all move in concert with each other. Traditional “night” photography is static – you get to the spot that you want to record from, set up, and remove yourself from the camera via a cable, a remote, or self timer. That, to a degree, is like taking the canvas, paints and brush to a meadow and asking the brush to interpret the scene for you. You are a degree removed from the act of creation.

Light painting by moving the camera can feel to some like antithesis of traditional photography and does seem to go against everything you’re taught that it takes makes a “good” picture. Using the night sky as the canvas, the camera as the brush and city or automobile lights (among other light sources) as the palette. Putting energy into moving the camera by stroking lights, making patterns and laying down backgrounds can create abstract artistic images. That is one of the difficulties in seeing abstract images.

Some of my favorite “traditional paint” artists are abstractionists – Pollock, Mondrian and Kandinsky for example – some great artists also really pushed the photography medium some time ago as part of the illustrious Bauhaus. Laslo Moholy-Nagy (who created the introductory image to this post) made some inroads with photograms, effectively painting with shadows. Man Ray was also a pioneer with photograms before Moholy-Nagy. They both took a traditional photo process and made it work for their vision of their art. That is really all we need to do. Challenge your vision. Expand creatively beyond normal. Have fun. Go make images.

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” -Ernst Haas

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